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Written by Sri Swami Chandrashekarendra Saraswati


When people nowadays talk of "sati" or "sahagamana" they mean it to be a custom in which the widow is forcibly thrown into the funeral pyre of her husband. We do not know for sure whether such an act of cruelty was indeed committed at any time in the past in any part of our land, that of forcibly pushing a widow into the funeral pyre of her husband. In any case sati has never been a widely practised custom. Only women of exemplary chastity and devotion, who did not wish to live after the passing of their husband, resorted to sahagamana. I have heard stories of such pativratas in my childhood. When the relatives lamented, "Oh, you are burning yourself alive, "the widows exclaimed, "This fire does not burn me. I am dying in the warmth of my husband's embrace." Such noble women died with a smile on their lips. When Hanuman set the Asoka woods ablaze with his burning tail, Sita remained unhurt because of her pativratya. When Kumarilabhatta was being scorched in the burning heap of rice-husk, he felt it cool in the presence of Sankara. Because of her supreme devotion to her husband the funeral pyre was as comforting as sandal-paste to a woman immolating herself. It seems even the cloth of such women were not consumed by the fire and were removed from the burning body to be cherished with devotion. A wife of exemplary pativratya falls dead on the death of her husband. In the story of Kannagi we come across such an example of devotion. When the Pandyan king dies owing to his profound feeling of guilt, his queen also dies with him. There is a similar story told of Padmavati, wife of Jayadeva, author of the Gita-Govindam. In order to test her devotion for her husband, the queen lightheartedly tells her that Jayadeva, who had been out on a journey, was dead. Thereupon Padmavati falls dead. The queen is filled with remorse for her thoughtlessness and it is said that Jayadeva was able to restore his wife to life with the grace of Krsna. Only women highly devoted to their husbands resorted to sahagamana. They were not forcibly thrown into the fire and were indeed prevented from taking such an extreme step. When Pandu died, Madri, one of his two wives and mother of Nakula and Sahadeva, ascended the funeral pyre of her husband as expiation for her being the cause of his death. The great men who permitted this act of sacrifice prevented Kunti, the second of the two wives, from taking a similar step. They said to her:" Desist from such an extreme act. Your duty now is to bring up your own children as well as Madri's." When Pukazhanar, father of Apparsvamigal (he had not yet come to be called by that name--he was then Marul Nikkiyar), died his wife Madiniyar immolated herself in her husband's funeral pyre. This story is told in the Periyapuranam. The chastity of Madiniyar's daughter was even of a higher order. Her name was Tilakavati. She was young and not yet married. It was her devotion to her husband-to-be that makes her a memorable character. She had been betrothed to Kalippakayar who was commander-in-chief of the Pallava army. But at the same time Pukazhanar died word came that the young Kalippakayar had been killed in battle. The young Tilakavati decided at once to put an end to her life. "I became his (Kalippakayar's) wife the moment I was betrothed to him. I will not look upon anybody else as my husband. Since he is gone I too will follow him in death. "Then Appar, that is Marul Nikkiyar, said, to his sister: "What will I do without my parents and without you? I am such a small boy. I too will accompany you to the other world." Tilakavati had now no choice but to change her mind so that she could look after her young brother. (True to her name she has remained as ornament to womanhood). Later her brother embraced Jainism with the new name of Dharmasena and it was she who weaned him from it. She was indeed instrumental in his becoming the poet-saint celebrated as Apparsvamigal. In Rajasthan there were so many noble women who earned a place in history by resorting to sahagamana. I should like to emphasise here that there was no compulsion for a widow to ascend the funeral pyre of her husband. But women who voluntarily resorted to sahagamana were revered and the sastras supported their action. Even today we hear rare cases of "sati", though the law does not permit it and the relatives dissuade such women from taking the extreme step. This seems to me particularly worthy of appreciation. In the old days the circumstances were favourable for the widow to perish in the fire with her husband. So, without being compelled by others and urged only by the desire to attain to a higher world, one or two widows immolated themselves. But today, in the age of Kali and of reforms, the circumstances are not favourable for such an act of sacrifice. So, despite this, if a woman decides to follow her husband in death it must be out of true devotion to him. I have often impressed upon you the importance of gurukulavasa. Like sati it is now a forgotten tradition. We find it difficult nowadays to run a gurukula. So if one or two boys come forward to study with a preceptor in his home and are prepared to observe bhiksacarya (that is begging for their food) their example must be considered worthier than that of brahmacarins of the past. Like sanyasa, sahagamana has never been compulsory. I will tell you an important reason for this. The dharmasastras deal extensively with the conduct of widows. If everybody was expected to be a sannyasin there would be, as I said before, no need for cremation to be brought under the purview of the sastras. Similarly, if every widow was expected to immolate herself in the funeral pyre of her husband, where would be the need for a separate code of conduct for them (that is for the widows)? Nobody can foretell when the hand of death will strike. It can come in one's childhood or during the time one is a householder. So everyone cannot be expected to die a sannyasin. If the sastras insist that on the death of a man his widow must also be cremated with him, then there will be no need for codifying "vidhava dharma"(code of conduct for widows).













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